Arsenal for Democracy, Part 2: The Symington Companies’ Rise and Fall

American involvement in World War I began on April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, but by then the war had already been well underway for nearly three years. The American tradition of neutrality in European conflicts kept the United States out of the war for a time, but Germany’s continued sinking of American merchant ships eventually forced the nation into the war.

Even before America entered the conflict, however, T. H. Symington was already providing supplies to the anti-German forces. Incorporated in early 1916, the Symington Machine Company manufactured shrapnel and shell casings for the British and Russians in two production facilities: Plant A (for shrapnel production, at the corner of Leighton Avenue and Barnum Street); and Plant B (for shell casings, at 25 Leighton Avenue).

Over two million shrapnel and shells were produced for the allies under a subcontract with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, and 420,000 shrapnel were produced under a subcontract for the Eddystone Ammunition Corporation. The company’s Machinery Catalog stated that their machinery could produce explosive or shrapnel shells of any size up to 3.75 inches in diameter and 13 inches in length.

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Symington Shrapnel

In 1917, as the United States entered the war, a new subsidiary was formed, the Symington Anderson Company, a partnership between Thomas Harrison Symington and fellow businessman Morton Howard Anderson (November 14, 1873-March 3, 1955). Anderson had experience in foundry work, having worked previously for Allis-Chalmers Company (a manufacturer of farm machinery) and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It is likely the partnership was an outgrowth of the subcontracting work for Bethlehem. Throughout the war, Anderson served as Vice President and General Manager of Symington Anderson.

By July 1918, the corporation was one of sixteen gun plants hastily constructed by the government to produce 3000 75-millimeter cannons (of which total Symington by itself made nearly one-third — 985). The War Industries Board parceled out the manufacture of these guns in three separate parts. Symington’s role was to produce the gun tube. The plant could produce 15 gun tubes daily (weighing 750 pounds each), as well 20 six-inch trench mortars.

symington 2-chalk board

Chalk Board Tracking Company Operations

The Symington Forge Corporation was formed in late 1917 and set to work building a single-story 59,850 square foot building at University Avenue and Blossom Road. The plant performed rough castings of shells that were later taken to the Symington Machine Company’s Plant B to be lathed and made into finished shells.

Symington’s munitions production facilities did not survive the war. At the war’s end, Symington closed the University Avenue and Leighton Avenue facilities and turned ownership over to the United States government. In 1919, the Leighton Avenue facilities were sold to General Electric to manufacture small motors.  By the mid-1920s, the University Avenue properties had also moved into private ownership.

symington 2_lincoln and west

Symington-Gould Building, Corner of Lincoln and West Avenues,
Today General Railway Signal

The original T.H. Symington Company continued to manufacture railroad components. In 1924, T.H. Symington sold his interest in the company to his two brothers, Charles J. Symington (2 February 1883-28 July 1878) and Donald L. Symington (27 October 1881-22 May 1944). One year later, the brothers purchased Gould Coupler Company and the Gould Storage Battery Company. In 1936, Symington and Gould merged to form the Symington Gould Corporation.

In 1942, during World War II, Symington Gould resumed armament production, including the construction of a new foundry and steel production facility at the corner of West and Lincoln Avenues. Among its other output were components for the Sherman tank. Armament production ceased following the end of the war. In 1948, Symington Gould’s production facilities moved to Depew (Erie County), New York. With its departure went Rochester’s unofficial status as the “Armaments City.”

-Christopher Brennan


For Further Information:

Sylvia R. Black and Harriett Julia Naylor, “Rochester and World War I,” Rochester History 5, no. 4 (October 1943).

Edward R. Foreman, “Rochester A World War Ordinance Center,” in World War Service Record of Rochester and Monroe County, New York (Rochester, New York: Published by the City of Rochester, 1930), 3:459-466.

“Maj. W.S. Symington Dead,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 11 June 1912, p. 9, cols. 1-4.

Rochester in History and Our Part in the World War, ed. Henry C. Maine (Rochester, New York: Wegman-Walsh Press, 1922).

“Services are Held for T. H. Symington,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 September 1931, p. 6, col. 1.

Auke Z. Verbree, A History of the Rochester Industrial Center: A.K.A., T.H. Symington Company & [sic] Symington Gould Company, Rochester, New York 1910-2015 (Rochester, New York: Mountain Air Books, 2015).



Published in: on June 7, 2018 at 1:42 pm  Comments (2)  

Past Purpose: The Graham Highland Park Sanatorium

Repurposed buildings abound in the city of Rochester. Dinosaur BBQ (formerly the LeHigh Valley Railroad Station), the Lofts at Michaels-Stern (formerly the Michaels-Stern & Co. clothing factory) and Radio Social (formerly a Stromberg-Carlson warehouse) are perhaps some of the more well-known examples. A lesser known repurposed edifice lies just steps away from Highland Park.


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1100 South Avenue as seen from Alpine Street.

This elongated building gracing the corner of South Avenue and Alpine Street has been an apartment complex for the past century, but it was once a sanatorium.



The building as it looked in the early twentieth century. [Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center]

In the 19th and early 20th centuries (before the advent of antibiotics), sanatoriums served as health centers that treated patients with chronic and long-term illnesses such as tuberculosis. Some functioned much like a health resort, while others were more akin to a multi-purpose hospital. The former institutions were usually referred to as sanitariums, while the latter were commonly called sanatoriums. Both were guided by the principle that fresh air, rest and relaxation were integral in the healing process.

In the spring of 1900, Dr. Merritt E. Graham, a former Monroe County Coroner and the chief surgeon at the Hahnemann Hospital (the homeopathic precursor to Highland Hospital), opened an eponymous sanatorium, which boasted the latest in modern medical equipment and an envious hillside setting on South Avenue.

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The parkside Graham Sanatorium can be seen in the lower left corner of this ca 1910 map. [City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910)

As the Democrat & Chronicle noted on June 9, 1900: “The most attractive location for a health resort in Rochester is that selected for the Graham Highland Park Sanatorium, on the northwest border of the beautiful Highland Park. From the porches of the sanatorium a view of the entire city, with Lake Ontario in the distance, is obtained, while over the park to the eastward and southward is a lovely landscape as far as the eye can reach.”


A circa 1900 advertisement for the Sanatorium (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, July 25, 1900)

Merritt Graham ran his pastoral practice for five years until his untimely death in August 1905.


Dr. Merritt E. Graham (1855-1905) [Notable men of Rochester and vicinity, XIX and XX centuries. 1902]

Following Merrit’s passing, his son Dr. Corden T. Graham took over the institution. By the close of October that year, the sanatorium had put on an addition, and rebranded itself as the Graham Highland Park Sanatorium and Maternity Hospital.


Dr. Corden T. Graham displaying the sanatorium’s first X-Ray Machine.


In addition to TB patients and expecting mothers, the sanatorium also admitted individuals who suffered from “nervous ailments” and various mental illnesses. At the time, it was maintained by many in the medical community that these conditions, like physical illnesses, could often be treated by a prolonged period of rest in a healthful environment.

While this method of treatment was seemingly successful for a number of Graham’s patients, others only found escape from their troubles by escaping the hospital itself and taking matters into their own hands.

One such incident almost led to the Highland Park Sanatorium’s demise. In November 1907, a well-respected professor from West High School named Fred Abell fled the sanatorium via a fire escape two weeks after his family had brought him to the facility. The next day, Abell’s body was found near the reservoir in Highland Park, where he had died due to exposure.

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Headline from Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, November 8, 1907.

Abell’s death led the State Lunacy Commission to launch an inquest into Dr. Corden T. Graham and his institution. Their main charge was that Graham had no right to treat mentally ill patients since he didn’t have a license to admit them to his hospital.

Graham defended his actions by indicating that his sanatorium only accepted patients that suffered from mild forms of mental illness, such as melancholia, and that other hospitals in the city also engaged in this practice.

The doctor was indicted by a Grand Jury in 1908, but the indictment was later dismissed when the case was brought before a county judge.

graham_grand jury

Headline from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, February 11, 1908.

Judge Stephens contended that hospitals such as the Graham Highland Park Sanatorium allowed individuals suffering from mild mental illness to get treated without having to undergo a State-ordered commitment to an asylum. Moreover, patients could be temporarily admitted to institutions such as Graham’s and then reintegrate into society without suffering any of the stigma associated with having been committed (which was then a matter of public record).

As  Stephens explained: “To deny the right of hospitals to receive occasional patients who are for the time irresponsible would deny to that class of patients adequate treatment outside of an insane asylum and would, to that extent, defeat the humane and commendable purpose of securing proper care and attention for them without the accompanying injury of a judicial commitment.”

Dr. Graham continued to run the Highland Park Sanatorium for almost a decade following the court case. After selling the hospital in 1917, he went on to become the surgical director of Base 19 Hospital in France during WWI and a Lieutenant-Colonel in the US Army Reserve.

The hospital he left behind was converted into the apartment complex that remains perched atop the corner of South Avenue and Alpine Street today.


-Emily Morry

Published in: on May 31, 2018 at 5:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Arsenal for Democracy: The Symington Companies in World War I – Part 1

Rochester has been variously described as “The Flour City,” “The Flower City,” and “The Image City,” even “Baseball City USA,” but no one has ever described it as “The Armaments City.” During the First World War, however, that is what it was.

The Rochester Ordinance District covered all of New York State except New York City, Long Island, and nine counties north of the Bronx. Over 80 companies in this district contributed to the war effort. Kodak, for example, made the first aerial cameras. Bausch + Lomb made optical glass for range finders, gun sights, periscopes and binoculars. Stromberg-Carlson made telephones and radio equipment for the Signal Corps. Most of Gleason Works’ output of machine tools, gears and castings went directly to the American armed forces. And, of course, there was military weaponry, including machine guns, rifles, various other guns and cannons, shells and shrapnel. From April 1917, to the end of calendar year 1918, the Ordinance District was credited with producing 17,850,512 pieces of military equipment. To meet the high demand, nearly one-third of those manufacturing such armaments were women.

symington- shell platn

Symington Factory

Within the city of Rochester itself, there was no larger manufacturer of military ordinance than the T.H. Symington Company. The company was named for its founder and president, Thomas Harrison Symington (14 May 1869-19 September 1931).  Symington was the son of William Stuart Symington (5 January 1839-9 June 1912), a socially prominent citizen of Baltimore.  Stuart, as he was known, was described at his death as a “Confederate of the Old School.” During the Civil War, he served as an aide-de-camp to General George Pickett (of “Pickett’s Charge” fame) from 1862 until the surrender at Appomattox.   After the war, he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, preferring to emigrate to Germany instead. After several years abroad, he returned and achieved success in business. His initial effort was in manufacturing fertilizer. When Ferdinand Latrobe was mayor of Baltimore, Stuart served as Superintendent of Lighting and Inspector of Gas Meters (1889-1895). Later, he worked in insurance and served as Secretary to the Board of the Consolidated Gas Company.

Son Thomas had a technological, rather than a chemical, bent, working for and eventually serving railroads. In 1887, he began his career, working as an apprentice for the Baltimore and Ohio (B and O) Railroad. He served there for four years before enrolling at Lehigh University to study mechanical engineering. Upon graduating, he returned to the B and O until 1901, when he started his own firm, the T. H. Symington Company. Headquartered in Baltimore, the firm made railway supplies such as journal boxes, draft gears, side frames, ball and roller bearings, and dust guards for steam and electric train cars and locomotives. The business was so successful that various manufacturing plants were established outside of Baltimore.

In 1909, one such plant opened in Rochester (at West Avenue and Lincoln Park). Initially supervised by local personnel, beginning in 1914, operations were supervised by Symington himself, as he relocated to Rochester, remaining here until after the First World War. Prior to the American entrance into the war, Symington had a successful foundry business, subcontracting railroad parts for firms that manufactured 12,000 railroad cars for Russia.


Symington Employees at Work (1917-1918)

Once the war got underway, Symington did not want to give up his peace time production, so he created three new subsidiaries to meet the demand for war materiel: Symington Machine Corporation (25 Leighton Street); the Symington-Anderson Corporation (1044 University Avenue); and the Symington Forge Corporation (1244 University Avenue).

We will hear more about these firms in the next post…


Symington Forging Storage
Capacity: 1 Million Shells
At peak, the company could produce 15,000 shells per day

Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Sylvia R. Black and Harriett Julia Naylor, “Rochester and World War I,” Rochester History 5, no. 4 (October 1943).

Edward R. Foreman, “Rochester A World War Ordinance Center,” in World War Service Record of Rochester and Monroe County, New York (Rochester, New York: Published by the City of Rochester, 1930), 3:459-466.

“Maj. W.S. Symington Dead,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 11 June 1912, p. 9, cols. 1-4.

“Services are Held for T. H. Symington,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 September 1931, p. 6, col. 1.

Auke Z. Verbree, A History of the Rochester Industrial Center: A.K.A., T.H. Symington Company & [sic] Symington Gould Company, Rochester, New York 1910-2015 (Rochester, New York: Mountain Air Books, 2015).

Published in: on May 24, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Hello, I Must Be Going: Frederick Douglass’ Arrival and Departure from Rochester (Last of a Series)

“Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay; I came to say I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going, la la!”

Hello, I Must Be Going, [comic song]. Words and Music by Bert Kelmar and Harry Ruby. Sung by Groucho Marx in the film Animal Crackers (1930).

 Local History Rocs is a website devoted to the history of Rochester and its environs, but careful readers of this series of blog posts tracing the career of Frederick Douglass will note that he has yet to arrive here. To date he has lived in Tuckahoe County, Maryland, New York City, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Great Britain and Ireland.

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Douglass’ first Rochester home at 297 Alexander Street.

Douglass had been in Rochester several times on his speaking tours, but finally settled here in 1847, partly due to the influence of the Rev. Thomas James, who had been his pastor in New Bedford and had previously been the pastor of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester (42 Favor Street). Wishing to start his own anti-slavery newspaper (what became The North Star), Douglass, it is commonly held, initially published the paper out of the basement of James’ former church, later moving operations to 25 Buffalo Street (what is today the Talman Building, located at 25 East Main Street).

dougalss in roc-zion

Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Favor Street

Douglass relocated due to Rochester’s reputation as the home of abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and temperance reformers. Among his staunchest friends were Underground Railroad conductors, Isaac and Amy Post, and women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Rochester was colorblind.

Shortly after moving into the first of his three homes (this one on Alexander Street), Douglass sent his daughter Rosetta to the nearby Seward Seminary. The principal, Lucilia Tracy, admitted her, but placed her in a class by herself due to disapproval by the school’s board of trustees. After protests from Douglass, Miss Tracy sent the white children home with notes to their parents, seeking their views on accepting Rosetta as a pupil. Due to the opposition of one parent – Horatio Gates Warner, editor of the Rochester Courier newspaper and designer of the Warner Castle on Mt. Hope Avenue – Douglass was forced to withdraw his daughter from the school. He later took part in a campaign to desegregate Rochester schools, a goal that was achieved statewide in 1857.

Douglass continued to reside in Rochester until 1872, his home and his office both functioning as Underground Railroad stations before the Civil War. After the war, much of his time was spent lecturing throughout the nation and lobbying in Washington, D.C. for civil rights. On the evening of June 3, 1872, while Douglass was once more in Washington, a fire broke out in the last home he owned here (on South Avenue, near where Highland Park is now). It was initially posited that the fire had been deliberately set.

douglass in roc-funeral

Frederick Douglass’ Funeral (1895), Central Presbyterian Church (today Hochstein School of Music).

As Douglass  exclaimed shortly after, even in one of the “most liberal of northern cities … that Ku Klux spirit … makes anything owned by a colored man a little less respected and secure than when owned by a white citizen.” Shortly after the fire, he left Rochester for good, making his home in the nation’s capital for the next 23 years. He returned to Rochester in a coffin, having died on 20 February 1895. Today, his mortal remains are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, a pilgrimage site for all those committed to civil rights.

-Christopher Brennan

For More Information:

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 3: 1855-1863, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

“Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City,” [exhibition], Rundel Memorial Building, Rochester Public Library.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part One,” Rochester History 67, no. 3 (Summer 2005).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part Two,” Rochester History 67, no. 4 (Fall 2005).

Published in: on May 8, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Different Drum- The Rochester Roots of Steve Gadd

Earlier this week, renowned percussionist Steve Gadd was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. The incomparable and innovative musician has made an indelible mark on the drumming world and has toured the globe providing the backbeat for major artists such as James Taylor, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon, but the roots of his sound can be traced back to his time in Rochester.

Stephen Kendall Gadd was born in Irondequoit, NY on April 9, 1945. Three years later, he started playing the drums.

Though Steve’s parents weren’t musical–his father was a drug salesman for the Rochester Drug Company–his uncle, Eddie Gadd, was a drummer in the U.S. Army.

Eddie gave his young nephew a round piece of wood to play on and taught the toddler how to hold drumsticks.

It wasn’t long before the pair began entertaining the family by playing along to marching band records in the Gadd’s’ living room.

Steve took his show on the road when he was in still in grade school at St Ambrose’s.


An announcement for Gadd’s appearance at The Barn. Democrat & Chronicle, October 31, 1953.

He wowed his peers with performances at The Barn, a youth center in Henrietta, while he and his brother Eddie, a tap dancer, also made regular appearances with the Veterans Park Band during Independence Day celebrations at Ontario Beach Park.


Gadd, age 9, as featured in the Democrat & Chronicle, July 31, 1954.

Years later, Gadd informed the Democrat & Chronicle that his family was instrumental in his early development as a musician.

“They were always behind me, all the way. They never pushed or tried to get me to go any one way. They just let us know, me and my brother, that they were there, that they supported us,” he noted in 1977.

Significantly, the family supported young Stephen’s budding interest in jazz music, taking him to afternoon gigs at the Ridge Crest Inn.

There, Gadd was often afforded the ability to sit mere feet away from masters such as Gene Krupa. Gadd not only learned from these teachers, but also had the opportunity to play with some of them. He sat in with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1956 when he was only 11 years old.


11-year-old Gadd played with Gillespie’s band during their stint at the Ridge Crest Inn in 1956.

That same year, Gadd entered the Mickey Mouse National Talent Round Up contest (sponsored locally by Sibley’s). Gadd was one of the 16 local finalists of the competition, and eventually won, appearing on the Mickey Mouse Club with his trap set on January 4, 1957.


Gadd on the Mickey Mouse Club, 1957. Source:

Gadd further honed his skills at Eastridge High School, playing in the dance band, the drum corps and the wind ensemble.


Gadd (centre) and two fellow members of Eastridge High School’s Dance Band


In 1963, Steve’s senior class voted him “Most Talented” (presumably because “Most Likely to Revolutionize the World of Drumming,” wasn’t a category).

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Eastridge High School’s most talented teens of 1962-63.


After a two year stint at the Manhattan School of Music, Gadd returned to Rochester’s Eastman School of Music to study under his longtime teacher and mentor, John Beck.

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Gadd at Eastman, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1968

Gadd sharpened his technical skills during the day and filled in his evenings playing with musicians such as Joe Romano and the Mangione brothers at a variety of local venues including La Galerie and The Lounge.


As advertised in the Democrat & Chronicle, November 13, 1965.

Gadd’s Rochester residency was halted when he was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. Because of his talents as a percussionist, Gadd played drums on the domestic front rather than engaging in battles abroad.

When he returned home, he began forging new musical territory with fellow Eastman alum Tony Levin and their jazz-rock fusion group, L’Image.

gadd-l'image may 23 1975.jpg

Advertisement for L’Image’s appearance at Red Creek (now MacGregor’s). May 23,  1975.

Thanks in part to Tony Levin’s recommendations, Gadd transitioned from club gigs to studio work in the 1970s, leading to his appearances on albums by a host of musical giants ranging from Chick Corea and Charles Mingus to James Brown and Steely Dan.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 26, 2018 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Liberators: Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell (Part 3 of a Series)

As we have seen, Frederick Douglass’ speeches about his experiences as a slave were so effective, he became the most well-known black man in the United States. This raised fears that his former master might try to kidnap him and drag him back into slavery. To foreclose that possibility, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland.

Douglass left Boston on August 16, 1845 for a 20-month tour, but it was not for pleasure. He was the honored guest of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. The British Parliament had previously outlawed slavery through gradual emancipation legislation, but at the time of Douglass’ visit, the British economy continued to import cotton and other commodities from the southern slaveholding states to fuel the British textile mills. The Societies were formed to pressure the British government to sponsor anti-slavery legislation for the empire and to abolish the practice worldwide by declaring all slave traders to be pirates.

Even before landing in Britain, Douglass was caught up in debate. Aboard the Cambria, scarcely out of port, he was encouraged by his fellow passengers to share his views as a black man on America’s “peculiar institution.” According to Douglass, this was an almost constant discussion throughout the voyage. As might be expected, passengers from slaveholding states took umbrage at many of his arguments. His opponents even went so far as to threaten violence against him until the captain intervened.

douglass ireland-1879 portrait

Frederick Douglass (circa 1879)

Douglass arrived in Liverpool on August 28th, and two days later he was in Celbridge (County Kildare), Ireland (14 miles west of Dublin). As he later wrote to William Lloyd Garrison:

One of the most pleasing features of my visit thus far has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me on account of my color. The change of circumstances in this is particularly striking. I go on stage coaches, omnibuses, steamboats, into the first [class] cabins, and in the first [class] public houses, without seeing the slightest manifestation of that hateful and vulgar feeling against me. I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man [emphases in original].

Among the friends he made on the trip was Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), famous among the Irish worldwide as “The Liberator,” the leader of the movement for Irish independence through political, non-violent means. While in Ireland, Douglass attended meetings of O’Connell’s Repeal Association and shared many of O’Connell’s views on the oppression of the Irish people. Speaking of the Irish, Douglass observed:

Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed, and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands.

douglass ireland-money

Republic of Ireland 20 Pound Note (1949?)

By the same token, O’Connell shared many of Douglass’ views of American slavery. At one meeting of the Repeal Association during his visit, O’Connell did not know Douglass was present when the latter overheard O’Connell say,

I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called, negro slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant.

Douglass was so enamored of his Irish experience that for a time he considered permanently relocating to the Emerald Isle. But his commitment to the abolitionist cause was so great, he could not resist the call to return to the New World struggle.

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 2, 1847-1854, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1, 1842-1852, ed. John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Laurence Fenton, Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell (Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2014).

Published in: on March 16, 2018 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Orator: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 2

After escaping from slavery and settling In New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass worked odd jobs and became active in the local abolitionist community. He attended various anti-slavery meetings and made his public speaking debut in Lynn, Massachusetts in October 1841, recounting his own experience as a slave.

His eloquence as a speaker and his poignant life experiences earned him the respect of fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who published the most influential anti-slavery newspaper of the day, The Liberator. Garrison’s admiration for the young Douglass was so great that he initially became a mentor to the young man, and Douglass became the leading agent of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He spoke at churches and in lecture halls throughout New England, New York State, and even Europe. Douglass’ eloquence was so profound that many doubted that he had ever been a slave. To quell these doubts, Douglass wrote the first of his three autobiographies, this one called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which became a best seller.


Engraved Portrait of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1855)

Douglass’ forceful testimony of his own experience in slavery raised fears among his friends that his former master might seek to reclaim him and drag him back into slavery. To ward off the threat, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland (of which experience we will hear more in a future post) in 1845. While he was gone, British and American abolitionists raised funds to pay Douglass’ last master, Thomas Auld, $1,250 to manumit Frederick Douglass, legally releasing him  from the yoke of slavery.

From the beginning of his public speaking career, Douglass’ rhetoric was supremely powerful and moving. His rhetoric is still effective, even more than 170 years later. In his maiden speech at Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass exposed the pain of enslaved people and the hypocrisy of slave owners:

“… But though they [abolitionists] can give you [slavery’s] history – though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience [emphasis in original]; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt those wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yes, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh. And yet, my master has the reputation of being a pious man and a good Christian. He was a class leader in the Methodist church. I have seen this pious class leader cross and tie the hands of one of his young female slaves and lash her on the bare skin and justify the deed by quotation from the Bible.”

The pain of Douglass’ story is even sharper when one realizes the female slave in question was his cousin Henny, who was disabled.


Corinthian Hall (1866), the site of many of Frederick Douglass’ Rochester speeches.
Built in 1849 and razed in 1929, it was located on Corinthian Street, behind the Reynolds Arcade.
It played host to balls, concerts, fairs, plays and lectures.

Although principally known as an anti-slavery speaker, Douglass did not limit himself to that topic. His first speech in Rochester, on March 5, 1848, was on the “Principles of Temperance Reform.” He was a popular and forceful advocate of temperance, women’s rights, and the opposition to capital punishment. There was no public issue of the day on which he did not bring the force of his words and personality to bear, including that of Irish independence.  We will hear more on the latter in our next posting.  [To Be Continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Man Without a Birthday: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 1

February is Black History Month, an unofficial holiday honoring the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States. The month-long celebration is rooted in an earlier celebration known as Black History Week, the first of which was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in mid-February 1926. The date chosen was based, in part, on the date of birth of Frederick Douglass. This is ironic since Douglass himself did not know when he was actually born. He said that he adopted February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, as his birthday because his mother had called him her “little valentine.”


38-year old Frederick Douglass (1856)

For those of us who have had yearly celebrations of our birth and are in contact with our parents, it is hard to realize the anguish that this ambiguity caused Douglass. One can hear the frustration, sarcasm, pain and anger in his third and final autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, when he discusses slaves’ uncertainty of their background, an uncertainty which he shared:

Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence in civilized society, sometimes designated as father, was literally unknown to slave law and to slave practice. I never met a slave in that part of the country who could tell me with any certainty how old he was. … Masters allowed no questions concerning their ages to be put to them by slaves. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of an impudent curiosity.

Even well into adulthood– as a man of 59 –Douglass continued to seek information about his background. Travelling to Talbot County, Maryland in 1877, he spoke to one of his former masters. The most Thomas Auld could tell him was that he was born in February 1818. No information was available as to the day or who his father was.

Just as he adopted a date of birth, Douglass adopted a new name as well. Douglass was not his birth name. He was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in Tuckahoe (Talbot County), Maryland, one of six children born to a slave woman, Harriett Bailey, and an unknown white man. Frederick Douglass never learned who his father was, although he assumed it was one of his mother’s owners (she had three). He grew up on the plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd, although Harriett and her children were actually owned by Lloyd’s plantation manager, Aaron Anthony. Separated from her child while Douglass was still an infant, Harriett was relocated (most likely sold) to another master, “Mr. Stewart,” 12 miles from the Lloyds and Anthonys. Douglass only saw her a handful of times thereafter, and always at night, since she had to return to the Stewart property by daybreak.

At the age of 8, Douglass was relocated to Baltimore, where he lived with Anthony’s daughter Lucretia, her husband Thomas Auld, and Auld’s parents, Hugh and Sophia Auld. The following year he returned to Lloyd’s plantation and was permanently separated from his mother and siblings, save for his sister Eliza. Later in 1827, he was sent back to Baltimore to live again with the Auld family, where he lived for six more years. During this time, he learned to read and write.


Frederick Douglass Memorial (1941) at its original location, St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. The statue was later moved to its present location, South Avenue at Highland Park.

Hired out as a laborer while in Baltimore, he made contact with the free black community in that city. In September 1838, using the papers of a free black sailor, he fled to New York City. It was there, among the abolitionist community, that he met and married his first wife, Anna Murray (1813? -August 4, 1882). Shortly thereafter, they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, he adopted the surname by which he would be known henceforth – Douglass — taking the name from an outlaw in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake” (1810), but adding an additional S.

[To be continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For More Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Daryl Michael Scott, “The History of Black History Month,” Black Past ( : accessed January 15, 2018). Dr. Scott is Professor of History at Howard University.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochester’s Daredevil: Sam Patch (1799-1829)

Readers of a certain age will remember Evel Knievel (1938-2007), known for various daredevil exploits (including an attempted jump over the Snake River Canyon). More recently, on June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and five years later, his wife Erendira dangled above Niagara Falls by her teeth, 300 feet above the water. Daredevils have always been among us, but only one American daredevil became a legend in Rochester and then the nation — Sam Patch.

Sam Patch was born on June 17, 1799 in Reading, Massachusetts. Raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he went to work in a local cotton mill at the age of 8. In his free time, he and his friends amused themselves by jumping into the water below the falls of the Blackstone River, a practice he continued into adulthood. Two decades later, he moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where in September 1827, he leaped the Passaic Falls, upstaging the celebration of an unpopular local businessman, Timothy Crane, who was dedicating a new pre-constructed bridge at the falls. He repeated the stunt on July 4, 1828 and again 15 days later.

Upon leaving Paterson, he began a career as a professional daredevil.  Having been invited by hoteliers in Niagara Falls, on October 7, 1829, he leaped 80 feet over the falls from a base on Goat Island. Ten days later, on October 17, 1829, he repeated the stunt, this time from a platform that raised the leap to 120 feet. On his way home from the Falls, he stopped in Rochester for his final jumps of the year.

sam patch- advert

Advertisement for Sam Patch’s last jump
(Published in Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829)

Both jumps were from the High Falls north of downtown. About 6,000 people watched as he jumped on November 6, 1829 from 100 feet above the river, preceded by his pet bear. Due to public interest, he announced that he would repeat the stunt one week later, on Friday November 13, 1829 at 2:00 PM from a stage which would raise the height to 125 feet. He also proclaimed that his pet bear would repeat the stunt one hour later. In front of a crowd of 10,000 people, Patch leaped from his platform, but lost his balance and landed sideways in the water, from which he never surfaced.

sam patch- parsons mill

Saw Mill of Thomas Parsons (1860?). Brown’s Island,
the site of Sam Patch’s leap from the High Falls into the Genesee River

Because his body was not immediately recovered, various legends grew up around Patch. Known as a hard drinker, it was believed by some that Patch had been drunk the day of the jump and that he had died as a result. Some believed that he had hidden behind the sheet of water of the High Falls and remained there until darkness fell, after which he made his escape. In fact, some were so sure he was alive that bets were placed that he would reappear before the start of the new year.

Such speculations came to an end on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1830, when his body was recovered from the Genesee River in Charlotte. His body was unrecognizable after months in the water, but several clues were used to identify the remains, including the black handkerchief he wore around his waist. Today his mortal remains are interred in Charlotte Cemetery, 28 River Street.

Sam Patch’s legend did not end with his death. Throughout the 19th century he was featured in tall tales, stage plays and children’s books. His name even became a polite epithet, “What the Sam Patch!” Today, his name adorns one of the river boats used for cruises on the Genesee.

sam patch - boat

Sam Patch river boat

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Primary Sources:

“Another Leap! Sam Patch Against the World!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, October 29, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Higher Yet! Sam’s Last Jump!” [advertisement], Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Shocking Event! Sam’s Last Jump!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph,” November 14, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 28, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, March 18, 1830, p. 2, col. 1.

Secondary Sources:

“Sam Patch,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 1184-1185.

Paul E. Johnson, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, “The Real Simon Pure Sam Patch,” Rochester History 52, no. 3 (Summer 1991).

Published in: on January 12, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: a New (mini-)Exhibit in Local History!


Yesterday, Mayor Lovely A. Warren and County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo proclaimed 2018 as “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” In honour of the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth, the City of Rochester and various local organizations and institutions will be offering a number of programs throughout the year to celebrate the life and legacy of the famed abolitionist, statesman and orator.

A few months ago, we in the Local History division began pondering how we might participate in this momentous anniversary. One of the ideas we came up with was to create a small exhibit on Douglass in conjunction with our current exhibit on Rochester’s bicentennials and centennials.

Seeking an original theme for the exhibit, we decided to focus on Frederick Douglass’ Rochester, highlighting the spaces and places that informed his life in the Flower City.

douglass exhibit- pamphlet

Douglass once wrote that he would always feel more at home in Rochester than anywhere else in the country, and his legacy is undoubtedly felt throughout the city in which resided for a quarter of a century.

His name adorns local institutions and sites such as the Frederick Douglass Community Library and Frederick Douglass Street, while artistic renderings of him span the city from the Wall Therapy mural at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Avenue D, to the Frederick Douglass Monument in the Highland Park Bowl.

These posthumous tributes to the civil rights activist coexist with the sites and spaces that shaped Douglass’ own life here.

Frederick Douglass resided in Rochester with his wife Anna and five children from 1847 to 1872. He moved here to establish his anti-slavery newspaper the North Star, which he published in the Talman Building on East Main Street.

His skills as an orator took him to renowned venues such as Corinthian Hall, where he delivered perhaps his most famous speech, ‘What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in 1852.

His work continued at home, where he wrote articles, coordinated Underground Railroad activities and sheltered escaped slaves. Only one of the three houses Douglass owned in Rochester (located on Hamilton Street) still stands today.

These are just some of the sites that patrons can learn about in the Local History Division’s new mini-exhibit: Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City.

As an added bonus, we have created a compendium exhibit pamphlet so that visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour of the stomping grounds of one of our most celebrated citizens.

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping His Tracks in Our City will run from January 11 -August 31, 2018 on the 2nd floor of the Rundel Library.


-Emily Morry


Published in: on January 5, 2018 at 5:43 pm  Comments (2)